Legends, Op. 59, B117
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
completed 22 March 1881
Premiere - date and place
private performance: 19 October 1881, Prague
public performance: before 17 February 1882, Milano
private performance: Karel Slavkovsky, Josef Richard Rozkosny
public performance: Carlo Andreoli + ?
Simrock, 1881, Berlin
Parts / movements
No. 1 Allegretto non troppo, quasi andantino, D minor
No. 2 Molto moderato, G major
No. 3 Allegro giusto, G minor
No. 4 Molto maestoso, C major
No. 5 Allegro giusto, A flat major
No. 6 Allegro con moto, C sharp minor
No. 7 Allegretto grazioso, A major
No. 8 Un poco allegretto, F major
No. 9 Andante con moto, D major
No.10 Andante, B flat minor
approx. 41 min.
composition history and general characteristics
The composition of ten short pieces for four-hand piano dates from Dvorak’s so-called Slavic period. The first mention of his intention to write a cycle entitled “Legends” came in a letter to the composer’s publisher Simrock, dated 14 October 1880. Dvorak at the time was completing his sixth symphony in D major, and the Legends could, in fact, be regarded as a kind of more intimate postscript to its idyllic atmosphere. The work is also sometimes seen as a counterpart to the Slavonic Dances, in contrast to which the Legends are more subtle and lyrical in character, a fact reflected in the subsequent orchestral version in the use of a smaller orchestral roster. Also typical of the piece is its somewhat archaic, epic character: although the individual parts of the cycle carry no specific story, Dvorak still managed to convey the idea of a continuous narrative.
It is conceivable that Dvorak’s primary inspiration for writing the composition was Erben’s poetry. Not only does the balladic character of certain parts of the cycle support this theory, but also a fact uncovered by English musicologist Gerald Abraham: according to Abraham’s findings, Dvorak possibly applied a principle he later employed in his symphonic poems, namely, the derivation of motivic material directly from the rhythm of the verse. The main theme of the first Legend could be precisely superimposed onto the introductory lines of Erben’s poem The Daughter’s Curse from the collection Bouquet, and the beginning of the fourth Legend is rhythmically analogous to Erben’s poem describing the Hussite victory at the Battle of Domazlice (Song of the Victory at Domazlice).
publication and reception
Dvorak wrote the entire Legends cycle during the first third of 1881 and dedicated it to leading Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick in recognition of the latter’s enduring interest in his work. The cycle was published by Berlin firm Simrock in the summer of that year. Johannes Brahms, conductor Hans von Bulow and other eminent figures from the music circles of the day expressed their great admiration for the Legends, and so Simrock requested, as he had done before in the case of the Slavonic Dances, that Dvorak write an instrumental arrangement as well. Dvorak readily agreed and orchestrated the entire cycle in late November and early December 1881.
Eduard Hanslick on the Legends:
“The title Legends finds its justification in the distinctive narrative and epically restrained tone which pervades this entire series of pieces, now softened to an enigmatic whisper, now enlivened in a colourful portrayal. What the work depicts, no-one can probably say for certain yet, even so, we sense that the main role is given over to something miraculous, enchanting. [...] The music flows up through Legends from crystal-clear, deep waters, refreshing and invigorating. What is it about Dvorak’s music that is so appealing to us and, at the same time, stays us with its soft, warm hand? Its sense of immediacy, its wholesome freshness. [...] Dvorak’s motifs are in the main short, but succinct and adeptly formed. Upon each return, they appear in a new mould, in a variable light. Only a master of harmonic and contrapuntal art could have written these Legends, even though they may not seem so erudite and scholarly at first glance.”